Posted tagged ‘Australia’

Give us a loan?

October 2, 2012

As the complexity of higher education funding, and the scarcity of available resources to provide funding, has become greater, an increasingly popular method of addressing it has been the idea of student loans. When the Westminster government introduced its recent framework for increased university fees for England, ministers emphasised that a university degree programme was still accessible to students without paying anything up front, and indeed without repaying anything until a reasonable salary threshold has been reached. By providing student loans, the system allows students to embark upon their studies without either them or their parents having to fork out anything at that point.

So is this as good as it sounds? No financial hurdles for students while studying, but financial benefits for universities from fees? Actually, England was not first to try this idea. Australia has been operating a fees/loans system for some time. It was introduced in 1989 as the ‘Higher Education Contribution Scheme’ (HECS), which has more recently been replaced by the ‘Higher Education Loan Programme’ (HELP). This scheme has been used as a model for higher education funding programmes contemplated or introduced elsewhere, including in Ireland. Student loan programmes are also common in the United States.

However, all these schemes are somewhat problematic. In Australia it was estimated in 2010 that outstanding student loans debt was $15.8 billion. In the United States student debt overtook credit card debt around the same time. Furthermore, it has been revealed in America that where graduates begin to re-pay their student loans, nearly 10 per cent default within two years. It is not unlikely that this pattern will be repeated in England, and if it is, it will create a whole new funding issue as the expected resources from loan repayments do not fully materialise.

There is, I believe, a strong case for tuition fees paid by the well off, with financial support for those who cannot afford to pay. There is also a case for state funding of higher education fees, provided the state understands the scale of the funding requirement. There seems to me to be no convincing case for loan schemes. They deter students, and they create unpredictable financial issues. It is time to move away from the whole idea.


A world apart but bound together (Steven Schwartz)

April 12, 2011

This post is written by Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney (and former Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in England). He has for many years been a forthright leader in higher education debate, and is the author of a widely read blog. As part of the process of provoking discussion across international boundaries, Steven and I agreed to exchange blog posts, and this is his contribution.

Some 16,728.62 kilometres (10,394.97 miles in Brit measure) separate the Granite and Emerald cities. They are a world apart, Aberdeen shivering in the North Sea haar, Sydney basking in the blue Pacific warmth. There are no stovies, haggis or bridies in Sydney but Aberdonians don’t know what it’s like to tuck into a pavlova, or a lamington or to smear vegemite on their morning toast (poor souls).

Despite the huge differences, and the vast distances between them, something ancient and abiding binds Macquarie University in Sydney with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

Both share the same heritage: descendents of the first European universities, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Montpellier, born some 800 years ago in a theocratic world – long before the Enlightenment paved the way for the dominance of science and logical positivism.

For almost 700 years, universities upheld Plato’s idea that education’s purpose was to forge character so graduates could take up their role in their society and contribute to the good of everyone.  (“But if you ask what is the good of education, the answer is easy: that education makes good men and that good men act nobly”.)

As recently as the 19th century universities set morality and ethics at the centre of their teaching, usually by inculcating religious precepts. The recently beatified Cardinal Newman—darling to common rooms across the world—wrote in 1854 that a professor should be “a missionary and a preacher”.

The decline in religion and the rise of cultural relativism made it increasingly difficult for universities to maintain their traditional mission. Still, it was necessary to have some mission and many universities took their lead from Benjamin Disraeli who, foreshadowing the secular new age, declared that a university should be “a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”.

Alas, we rarely hear much about character or liberty or wisdom in today’s halls of academe. The current view of what universities are for is strictly utilitarian. Universities are all about money. According to the Australian chief scientist, universities are “huge generators of wealth creation”, which exist to provide employers with work-ready graduates and to drive exports. As the Australian government puts it, higher education’s purpose is to create “the most skilled economy and the best trained workforce in the world” and to make discoveries that can be commercialised.

According to James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, authors of Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, the role of money in universities has been inverted. Money was once necessary to subsidise teaching and assist research. Today, we offer courses and conduct research in order to make money. What was once a means has become and end.

This inversion presents a challenging dilemma for those of us charged with leading a university. In the age of money, we must deliver job-ready graduates and impactful research but we must also try to maintain and advance academe’s hallowed mission of teaching, learning, research, and to be the preserver and transmitter of scholarship and knowledge.

Resistance is futile.

In Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard,  Prince Tancredi begs Don Fabrizio to accept some political change to avoid a complete upheaval.  In Tancredi’s words” “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.

Universities are in the same situation.

From Aberdeen to Sydney and most places in between, universities remain in thrall to the agrarian-era legacy—long holidays (for crop gathering, sowing and planting) and cumbersome governance structures. Yet, our students and our circumstances have changed dramatically. Our students are not required to do farm labour and our societies can no longer afford our languid approach to teaching.  Governments (more accurately, tax payers) cannot afford it and neither can students.

Australian students already pay high fees (through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme) and they have a consumer’s demand for value and efficient and timely delivery of services. Forty per cent are mature aged and often in full time work.  Most arrive with ingrained technological skills: computers, mobile devices, apps and social networking are second nature. To reach them, we in universities must quickly embrace new technologies, teaching methods, and make better use of the time available in a year. Our job is not to “lecture” but to ensure that students learn. It is time we admitted that these are not the same thing.

Clearly, we will have to deliver the education that society needs and this must include preparation for the world of work.  But disciplines advance so quickly. In medicine, for example, new drugs, instruments and techniques are constantly being invented. Some revolutionise treatment and many challenge the conventional wisdom.  Medical schools teach skills – but many of these are obsolete a few years after graduation. Skills alone are not enough.

No one can predict how knowledge will evolve, so graduates in any field need to know how to keep learning long after they leave university.  Rather than teach students what to think, universities must remain true to their heritage and help them to learn how to think.

Graduates also need to be given a chance to follow the Delphic oracle’s command to “know thyself”, which must involve exposure to the great works of our, and others’, cultures.

A university education ought to produce educated men and women who understand the world, the culture in which they will live, and their place in it.  All this may be difficult to achieve for every student in every course in every university, but it should nonetheless be our aim.

Someone once said that a university is a rare, delicate, antique crystal bowl. The institution’s leader is entrusted with the bowl for a period of time and is given the task of carrying it through a maze of slippery corridors. The leader can take many different routes through the maze—the route makes no difference. There is only one requirement for success; the leader must never drop the bowl.


Questioning the international education option

October 15, 2010

University studies, as we know, have become a globalised activity. Over the past decade or two there has been an explosion in student migration, and the more developed university systems (and it would have to be said, the English language ones in particular) have hosted increasingly large numbers from countries where higher education did not have the capacity to meet all local demand, or who wanted to enjoy a more international student experience.

Perhaps the country that pursued international markets with the greatest energy and professionalism was Australia.  Australian universities became highly active and skilled recruiters, in Asian countries in particular, and they also developed the practice of establishing branch campuses in overseas locations. At one point in the late 1990s I was watching with awe as Monash University established itself in Malaysia, South Africa and even London, creating a dynamic multinational brand. During this period, higher education became one of Australia’s foremost export products and a major contributor to resources and employment for the country.

But now all that is coming under stress. Currently Australia has around 214,000 overseas students studying in its universities (more than the entire Irish university student population), but researchers from Curtin University predict that this will fall to 148,000 over the coming five years, with a loss of AUS$ 7 billion to the economy. Already Monash University may be making 300 staff redundant as a result of falling overseas student numbers. The reasons for this are many, including operational matters such as visa rules, and competition from other countries. But I suspect that more of it is to do with changing attitudes in some of the countries from which students are recruited, who are now less willing to be one-way importers of another country’s educational products.

Taking all this closer to home, what should we be concluding? First, I believe that the volume trade in international students is coming to an end. The idea that students from, say, Asia might come and help some European or other western country’s balance of payments, or more than that, help subsidise domestic students is no longer viable (just as some politicians in Ireland are, ironically, warming to that theme). That was never really a global business anyway, it was just a case of exploiting market opportunities.

This does not mean that student migration will no longer happen; rather it means that it will happen as part of a broader package of collaborative and strategic partnerships, which will involve mutually helpful arrangements between countries and institutions, and which will be based not just on teaching some migrants who are all coming one way, but rather on exchanges and research partnerships. It requires a totally different mindset. Reaching out overseas will still be a higher education imperative, but not based solely or mainly on generating an export business. It is time for international education to become an educational, rather than mainly an economic, option.

The news from Australia

June 24, 2010

I spent a few days in Australia earlier this year, and my visit convinced me that in Europe we need to pay more attention to what is going on in that country. Here is a western democracy that has been able to avoid the recession that hit the rest of us, that has continued to enjoy a stable banking system with no inflated property values, that has ambitious plans for higher education expansion and that has a vibrant and growing population. But, I would have added, and apparently very unpopular government then led by Labor leader Kevin Rudd.

However, with a general election approaching and a real possibility of a meltdown in the Labor vote, the party has experienced a stunning coup that seems to have been hatched and completed in only minutes, and today Australia has a new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard (the country’s first woman in that role). It now remains to be seen whether the change of leadership will improve the Labor Party’s electoral prospects.

I shall continue to watch with interest.